Vitriol-throwing: historic background

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 6, 2013

Possibly the best known example of throwing acid at someone as a form of violent assault, in modern America, is a fictional episode. Just like the best known examples of exceptional detectives are fictional characters. Also like great detectives, however, it was not always thus; Brilliant Deduction‘s chapter on Isaiah Lees opens with an investigation into vitriol-throwing.

My book tackles the question of where the real-life great detectives went; recently, L.V. Anderson examined the similar disappearance of vitriol-throwing for Slate’s Explainer series.

Much of what Anderson reveals squares neatly with Lees’s encounter with vitriol-throwing in the mid-19th century. “…sulfuric acid was a common weapon in domestic disputes. […] Throwing vitriol was a way not only of causing someone immense pain, but also of rendering him or her unattractive, which goes partway toward explaining its use in sexually charged disputes.”

Anderson credits both evolving social attitudes, and better regulation of dangerous chemicals, for vitriol attacks’ wane over the past century. Unfortunately, the same is not true everywhere; the existence of Acid Survivors Trust International as an active organization testifies to the persistence of this hateful crime into the 21st century.

Per Anderson, “Human rights scholars note that acid violence is correlated with gender inequality, acid’s cheapness and accessibility, and the failure of courts to convict perpetrators.” San Francisco apparently had the first two of these operating in Lees’s early career, but did manage at least one conviction. Best of luck to all those still struggling to put a stop to acid violence in other communities, today; this is one phenomenon that I certainly hope can be widely forgotten, some day.

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